The Force of Finance for Responsible Business: How the financial sector could and should contribute to responsible business conduct
Roel Nieuwenkamp, Chair of the OECD Working Party on Responsible Business Conduct (@nieuwenkamp_csr). This article also includes a contribution by Bob Jennekens, LL.M./M.A. student, Maastricht University Faculty of Law/Arts and Social Sciences.
These days a critical mass of investors promote investment approaches which take into consideration environmental, social, governance (ESG) factors, otherwise known as responsible investment. Investors involved in the ‘Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) Initiative, a membership based organization which seeks to promote responsible investment, currently manage over $60 trillion in assets.
Responsible investment is not only an ethical consideration but also relevant to managing risks regarding returns on investment as often there will be alignment between salient ESG risks and financial materiality. A wide body of research suggests that responsible business practices can represent a competitive advantage for firms, creating increased returns for investors, while irresponsible practices can pose serious risks and costs. For example, earlier this month investors of ExxonMobil and Chevron voted to support a resolution for a climate ‘stress-test’, signalling that investors view climate change as a material financial risk.
In this context many investors rely on the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (the OECD Guidelines) as an important benchmark for responsible business conduct (RBC) for their investee companies. The OECD Guidelines are a comprehensive multilateral agreement on corporate responsibility which are accompanied by a globally active grievance mechanism that aims to resolve issues arising under the Guidelines, including those linked to investments in companies which may be behaving irresponsibly. This mechanism is known as the National Contact Point (NCP) system.
Because they hold the purse strings, investors have the potential to exert substantial influence, or leverage, on their underlying companies. Under the Guidelines institutional investors are expected to conduct due diligence and use their leverage to influence companies they invest in to prevent or mitigate negative impacts they are causing. Similarly, PRI members subscribe to the principle of being active owners of their investments, which in practice also includes engaging with and exerting leverage on investee companies to promote responsible business practices. We have already seen many significant examples of the ‘’force of finance’’ in promoting responsible business practices. In the context of the OECD Guidelines’ grievance mechanism, investors have helped persuade companies to come to a mediated agreement with parties raising complaints and have followed up on NCP statements with recommendations, adding ‘teeth’ to the process. In practice this has resulted in investor engagement to fight forced labour in Uzbekistan, to prevent environmental damage in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and to prevent human rights violations in India.
These examples, described in more detail below, have demonstrated that harnessing the “force of finance” can create real market incentives for responsible business and promote respect of non-binding international standards, such as the OECD Guidelines.
The OECD Guidelines and National Contact Points (NCPs)
The OECD Guidelines, affectionately referred to as the grandmother of all corporate responsibility standards, celebrate their 40 year anniversary this year. The Guidelines are a comprehensive set of recommendations directed towards multinational enterprises (MNE’s). While they are non-binding for companies they represent a “firm expectation by governments on company behaviour.”
They are however binding for member states of the OECD, who are obliged to 1) promote the OECD Guidelines amongst MNEs operating in or from their territories and 2) establish National Contact Points (NCPs). NCPs are mandated to promote the OECD Guidelines within their jurisdictions and to serve as the unique grievance mechanism of the OECD Guidelines. NGOs, citizens and other interested parties can refer complaints to NCPs regarding alleged non-observance of the OECD Guidelines, termed as “specific instances.” Specific instance proceedings usually involve mediation between the parties followed by a final statement on the issues.
The role of the financial sector in promoting RBC is increasingly being discussed in the context of specific instance proceedings. Specific instances involving the financial sector have seen significant increases in terms of submissions of complaints, from about 8% of specific instances from 2000-2010 to 17% of specific instances from 2011. Increased attention to expectations of investors to manage environmental and social risks in their underlying companies as well as recognition of the financial materiality that such risks may bring has encouraged investors to take an active role in promoting responsible business conduct. Below we highlight five specific instances to illustrate the potential force of finance in promoting the recommendations of the OECD Guidelines.
Divestment based on poor stakeholder engagement and risks to Indigenous Peoples
In 2009 the UK NCP handled a specific instance involving Vedanta Resources, a diversified metals and mining group, with regard to establishment of a bauxite mine and the expansion of an aluminium refinery in Orissa, India. The NCP concluded that Vedanta Resources had failed to adequately consult indigenous communities about the proposed mine. In response to this finding and the ongoing controversy, some investors made an effort to engage with Vedanta while others disinvested or significantly decreased their stakes in the company. Investors that chose to divest included the Norwegian Government Pension Fund (one of the largest pension funds in the world), the Church of England, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and more recently, the PGGM, a large Dutch pension fund manager. PGGM noted that it had attempted engagement with Vendanta for two years with regard to its mining activities in Orissa, and that it had met with the company’s management and non-executive directors. PGGM stated however that when it had tried to organise a meeting with a group of other investors: ‘to discuss possible solutions to the problems in Orissa, Vedanta did not accept the invitation to participate.’
Engagement with government regarding human rights and forced labor in the cotton sector
In 2014, the Korean NCP received a complaint alleging that Daewoo International had breached the human rights provisions of the Guidelines by purchasing cotton produced in Uzbekistan despite their awareness of on-going state-sponsored forced labour in the country. The Korean NCP recommended that the company continue to monitor the situation and respond actively to the issues by means of dialogue and co-operation with the government of Uzbekistan, state-owned companies, related international organisations, NGOs, and local communities.
Upon issuance of these recommendations by the NCP the CEO of Daewoo and other senior executives of the company asked the government for consistent efforts to eliminate the risk of forced labor in Uzbekistan. Pension funds from Sweden, UK, Denmark, Poland, etc. have also been engaged with Daeweoo to encourage them to contribute to improved labor conditions in the cotton industry. These major global investors want the company to keep pressing the government of Uzbekistan to introduce risk mitigation measures in this context, for example, independent monitoring of the cotton harvesting.
Exclusions and human rights violations in the mining sector
In 2012 three complaints were filed claiming POSCO, a South Korean steel company had not engaged in meaningful stakeholder consultations and had not respected environmental and human rights standards when establishing a new plant in India. In addition to bringing a specific instance involving Posco’s parent company, two other specific instances were filed implicating pension funds with investments in POSCO. These were ABP, one of the Netherlands’ largest pension providers, and its administrator APG and Norges Bank Investment Management (NBIM).
As a result of the NCP process ABP agreed to use its leverage in the future to bring the operations of POSCO up to the required international standards and proposed organizing a fact finding mission to India to map the adverse impacts. However this fact finding mission was not undertaken and POSCO was effectively excluded from ABPs portfolio. Subsequent to the issuance of a final statement from the Norwegian NCP, POSCO has been included on NBIM’s conduct-based investment exclusion list.
Prevention oil prospecting in a World Heritage Site
In 2013 a complaint was lodged by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) at the UK NCP against SOCO, a British oil and gas exploration company for its operations in the Virunga National Park in the DRC. These operations were deemed to be contrary to the DRC’s treaty obligations to protect the Virunga National Park as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. WWF also appealed to SOCO investors to engage with the company. The investors, including Aviva, heard WWF’s call and responded by engaging with SOCO to bring it in line with expectations under the OECD Guidelines. Some even called to remove SOCO’s CEO in reaction to the event. As a result of the NCP case and pressure exerted by investors SOCO committed to cease exploration in the park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status and also committed to “not to conduct any operations in any other World Heritage site.”
Protesting the pharmaceutical sector’s involvement with capital punishment
Recently a case was brought to the Dutch NCP involving Mylan, a pharmaceutical company, for possible human rights abuses associated with the production and sales of rocuronium bromide to the United States for use in lethal injections. In parallel to the specific instance proceeding several investors entered into dialogue with Mylan to persuade the company to ensure that its products are not used to carry out lethal injection executions. ABP had been in talks with Mylan since October 2014 about the use of muscle relaxants in executions in US prisons, however because it felt its requests to alter its distribution systems were not met with an adequate response, ABP decided to sell its shares in the company. Other shareholders, such as ROBECO, PGGM-Pensioenfonds Zorg & Welzijn and NNGroup N.V., indicated their intention to continue the dialogue. Excluding investments was seen to be ‘a last resort that should be used only when all other forms of active shareholdership have not led to the desired result.’ Since the specific instance was first filed Mylan has taken active steps to prevent the rocuronium bromide from being used in US prisons for executions. The Dutch NCP concluded in its final statement for the specific instance that “dialogue as well as disengagement by some [investors] appear to have contributed to improvements in Mylan’s conduct.”
Investors have the power
Investors have significant potential to use the “force of finance” to promote better business behaviour amongst their investee companies. Indeed, applying this leverage is an expectation under the OECD Guidelines as well as Principles for Responsible investment.
These five specific instances represent fascinating case studies of how investors can exert leverage on their underlying companies, either through engagement or divestment, to promote responsible business conduct. In practice, often investor engagement with investee companies is done in confidence and thus likely many more examples of successful outcomes exist. Furthermore, direct engagement and divestment represent only two approaches investors have at their disposal in using the force of finance to promote responsible business practices. Shareholder activism is another potentially effective approach. Recently AFL-CIO, the most powerful trade union in US, introduced a shareholder resolution at seven companies urging them to participate in mediation processes to remedy human rights violations, including through NCPs. Even if these resolutions are not ultimately successful they nevertheless will serve to heighten awareness amongst investee companies at the board level about the NCP procedure as well as importance of these issues for their investors.
While these initiatives and results are promising, active ownership and application of due diligence as promoted by the OECD Guidelines by institutional investors is a trend that is still only in its infant stage. In order to have greater impacts these ESG initiatives will have to be scaled up considerably and global investors will have to collaborate with one another to encourage positive solutions to pervasive challenges in the context of corporate responsibility.
Roel Nieuwenkamp maintains a blog where all of his articles are archived. Please visit https://friendsoftheoecdguidelines.wordpress.com/
 Established per article I, paragraph 1 of the Amendment of the Decision of the Council on the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises